2012 in dining: An era of expansion

Call it manifest restaurant destiny. In 2012, Baltimore-based restaurateurs set about expanding their empires, or at least their brands.

Clementine opened a second location in the Creative Alliance in Highlandtown, the team behind Langermann's in Canton opened a second location in South Baltimore, and the owners of Mo's opened a new restaurant in Towson, in the old Hersh's Orchard Inn. And, in December, a version of Baltimore's estimable Prime Rib opened in, of all places, the new Maryland Live Casino in Arundel Mills.

But unlike in the old days, when expansion-minded restaurateurs simply replicated their winning formula in new locations, this year's expansionists were offering diners wholly new concepts.

Sometimes the new place was more casual than the original, but sometimes it was a step up in formality. Frederick-based restaurateur Bryan Voltaggio had it both ways. In June, he opened the suitable-for-all-audiences Family Meal in a former Frederick car dealership and came back in December with Range, a sprawling carnivore's paradise in Washington's renovated Chevy Chase Pavilion.

Amy and Spike Gjerde of Woodberry Kitchen opened Artifact Coffee, a seven-days-a-week casual stop-in for breakfast, lunch and early dinner. Located across the light rail tracks from Woodberry in the restored Union Mills complex, Artifact Coffee shared the movie-set good looks of the parent restaurant.

Continuing to lead Baltimore's expansion pack is Foreman Wolf, the successful restaurant group headed by Cindy Wolf and Tony Foreman. In October, Foreman Wolf opened its fifth and most casual restaurant, Johnny's, in the Roland Park Shopping Center. Serving an eclectic menu of California-influenced cuisine, the everyday, three-meal restaurant, drew diners with features like a whiskey bar and an intense coffee program.

A newer player, Bagby Restaurant Group, added the upscale and impressive Fleet Street Kitchen to a Harbor East lineup that includes Bagby Pizza and Ten Ten, a midsize bistro. Founded by Sinclair Broadcasting Group owner David Smith and run by his son, Blake, the Bagby Restaurant Group will open its fourth restaurant, Cunningham Kitchen, next spring in Towson City Center.

The restaurant group behind two casual Harbor East spots, Manchurian Rice Co. and Harbor East Deli, took an impressive leap with Ouzo Bay, a posh new waterside restaurant serving superb fresh fish, Greek specialties and bombastic desserts sculpted out of spun sugar.

And sometimes the connections were obscure. The team behind Canton's popular Blue Hill Tavern opened two joints on O'Donnell Square, Shiso Tavern and Tavern on the Square, with markedly different concepts.

Harbor East and Canton, along with Hampden, were the focus of impressive restaurant growth.

In Hampden, the Food Market proved an instant hit on the Avenue, with diners waiting on the sidewalk, late into the evening, for their tables. Not too far away, in an old mill building along the Jones Falls, a new restaurant named Birroteca was booked solid on most nights for weeks after its mid-September opening.

The year's biggest hits played different tunes. The Food Market, led by former City Cafe chef Chad Gauss, offered a freewheeling menu of American bistro fare, including buffalo pickles, duck confit potato skins, wild rockfish and veal meatloaf. Birroteca, with head chef Cyrus Keefer and proprietor Robbin Haas, brought Italian tavern classics like grilled calamari, polenta and coal-fired pizza into a rugged farm-to-table setting. Diners loved the food, and the places, even (or especially) when things got loud and crowded.

Along with Fleet Street Kitchen and Ouzo Bay, Harbor East welcomed Pabu, a Japanese restaurant connected to the Four Seasons Hotel Baltimore, and Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant and Townhouse Kitchen and Bar, chain restaurants that filled out an emerging dining strip on Lancaster Street. Just across the Harbor East border in Little Italy, Heavy Seas Alehouse had a successful first year in the old Tack Factory, where previous tenants had failed to attract customers.

New restaurants in Canton ran the gamut. Plug Ugly Publick House opened in the old Helen's Garden space and fit seamlessly into the O'Donnell Square tavern scene. But on the outskirts, Fork & Wrench, Verde Pizza Neapoletana and Of Love and Regret brought assertive style, on and off the plate, to the neighborhood.

There was sad news in Canton, too. In August, Patrick "Scunny" McCusker, the owner of Nacho Mama's and Mama's on the Halfshell, died of injuries he sustained in an accident on Coastal Highway in Ocean City. He was remembered in the days, weeks and months following his death for his entrepreneurial acumen, charitable spirit and outsize personality.

There were encouraging signs of revival in the Inner Harbor with additions like Brio Tuscan Grill and Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., and extensive renovations and menu updates at J. Paul's Harbor Place and McCormick & Schmick. The Inner Harbor also got its first crab deck, at the Phillips Seafood restaurant, which opened in a new location in late 2011.

Changes and closings

Lost City Diner closed in Station North. By year's end, though, there was talk that owner Joy Martin would reopen the handsomely furnished corner spot. The pan-Asian cafe Sam's Kid closed in February and reopened months later, under new ownership, as Willow, a smart lounge with a Mexican menu.

After 10 years, the Donna's location in Columbia closed in May when the restaurant's owners chose not to renew their lease. And on the banks of Lake Kittamaqundi, the Red Pearl closed its Columbia doors.

The ambitious Kettle Hill lasted less than a year at Power Plant Live, and just before Thanksgiving, Crush closed on Belvedere Square. Demi, the restaurant that operated on Crush's lower level, had closed months earlier. The long-suffering Milan finally called it a day.

Two nostalgia-inducing restaurants, the old Werner's lunchroom and the Hollywood Diner, reopened this year under new operators with their chrome fixtures sparkling. New proprietors opened the Mount Vernon home of the memorable Brass Elephant as the Museum, which appeared to operate in near-secrecy.

The Charles Village Pub in Towson, Mount Washington Tavern and Regi's in Federal Hill all reopened, remodeled, after fires closed them for various lengths of time.

The Harford Road favorite Chameleon changed its owners, chefs and even its name. It is now Maggie's Farm, and the new chef-owner is Andrew Weinzirl, most recently of the Wine Market, where Wilbur Cox is the new executive chef. Joining Weinzirl at Maggie's Farm is Sarah Acconcia, who opened the kitchen at Kettle Hill.

Elsewhere, Chris Clune stepped in for the departing Jamie Forsythe at B in Bolton Hill. Tim Dyson took over the kitchen at Bluegrass from Ray Kumm, who moved to Brewer's Art. Bluegrass's first chef, Patrick Morrow, returned to Ryleigh's Oyster.

And "Top Chef" alumnae Jill Snyder and Jesse Sandlin resurfaced, at Clementine and Vino Rosina, respectively.

In other television news, the results of Gordon Ramsay's makeover at Baltimore's Cafe Hon were documented on a May episode of "Kitchen Nightmares." A follow-up episode aired this month. Ramsay liked what he saw.

In June, Andrew Zimmern came to Baltimore and the Eastern Shore to film material for a 2013 episode of his "Bizarre Foods America" show and tweeted out a steady feed about his visits to such places as the J.M. Clayton Seafood Company in Cambridge, Chap's Pit Beef, the a-rabs' Carlton Street Stables, and both Hollins and Lexington markets.

There was no word, at year's end, on the family restaurant named Half Acre that Spike Gjerde was developing for Falls Road, and the promised Chesapeake restaurant project failed to materialize in 2012.

Some things stayed the same, though. Iggies Pizza announced in June it was moving to Towson. Six weeks later, Iggies was staying put, its owners said.